Why generic video is a killer for TV news.

Producing, Reporting, Survival Kit, Writing Help Comments Off on Why generic video is a killer for TV news.
Nov 292012

Yes, the title of this article is a strong statement. TV news is up against some large hurdles, the largest being making sure your newscasts and stories actually have impact for the viewer.  If they don’t, viewers leave.  Generic video creates an instant disconnect.  That’s why I defined it and talked about ways around in Show it, explain it, and that’s why I am dedicating a second article.  It is important to understand that this common crutch really kills credibility.

If viewers watch a story, and the video doesn’t make sense with the words two things happen:  The viewer gets confused and misses half of the story, and the viewer starts wondering if the person reading the story knows what he/she is even talking about.  Think about it, would you do a presentation for a group of people and not use the correct power point diagrams?  Would you notice if the graphics don’t make sense and become angry that the speaker keeps flashing them up anyway, just so there is something on a screen?  This is how generic video comes off to TV news viewers.  It is confusing, and frustrating.

Viewers want to grasp what you are saying and showing to them.  Video and sound help imprint it in their busy minds, so they actually remember what was said, who said it and what it meant.  That is too powerful a tool, to just write a story, and hope the video makes sense.  You must know what your images are, and relate the facts to the video.  Otherwise you are telling viewers to go elsewhere, because your station is clueless.

So if you want to stand out on the job, and as a journalist period, show video, use sound, and explain it.  Vow to never put a piece of video into your package or your newscast that you don’t reference in some way.  It’s time to say goodbye to generic video.

Show it, explain it. How to give generic video meaning.

Producing, Reporting, Survival Kit, Writing Help Comments Off on Show it, explain it. How to give generic video meaning.
Nov 262012

With so many resources to acquire and watch video nowadays, I am shocked at the amount of generic video on television news programs.  Recently, I asked journos to define what generic video is.  The answers were interesting and included:  “stock footage”, “any file video”, and “any video that was not referenced.”  So, let’s begin by defining generic video.  Generic video is video that is shown but not referenced.  Stock footage often fits the bill.  Take, for example, holiday stories about shopping.  You see the same shots of headless people carrying bags in a random mall each time a shopping story is mentioned.  Stories about beach conditions get the same treatment.  You see the same shots of the same beach and same women in bikinis.  Many editors have this video ready to call up at a moment’s notice. It includes:  people getting vaccinations, standing in line to vote, various food items, houses for real estate stories and millage rate stories, and school video of headless students in hallways. Catch my drift?

Generic video doesn’t have to be stock footage though.  I recently watched a vo about a shooting at a house.  In the video, there were tight shots of a window, shots of two different houses next to each other, and then suddenly a shot of an older woman in a hat walking with a younger person.  What did this mean?  Who was the woman?  Who was the younger person?  I’m still not sure which house the shooting happened in!  The video was shot that day, but it didn’t help tell the story in any way.

Now let’s talk about file video.  It is only generic if you don’t explain why you are showing it.  If you are talking about an anniversary of the disappearance of a woman for example, you can say, “you may remember this is the last place where so and so was seen.  Family and friends held up these signs for weeks at busy intersections neardy hoping to find her.”  The file video is not generic.  It has to do with how the writer references the images.  You have to explain why you are showing the video.

In “Can You Picture It” I spell out ways to talk about video and give it meaning.  Recently, I was talking with a producer about this issue and he said, “You get around generic video with see it say it, right?”  No.  “See it say it” is another trap.  The only time you use that rule, is when you are listing a specific phone number, or an address and times for a specific event.  (Think weekend calendars, and crime lines.)  Make sure the phone number or address you are referencing is on the screen, so people can actually take down the information.  Otherwise, think “show it, explain it” rather than “see it say it.”  Think about it, when you watch an entertainment show with a narrator, the narrator does not simply list off every image and throw in a fact here and there.  The narrator tells a story, and the video helps you follow along.  TV writing should do the same.  The anchor or reporter is telling a story, the pictures help you follow along.  You have to reference the video, but that is not the same as “take a look at this, these people are shopping.”  You can reference something like, “we saw plenty of people carrying shopping bags at stores today, that’s good news for retailers and our economy.”  That makes the viewer look at the video to see who is carrying bags and who isn’t.  You are adding a dimension to the video to give it meaning.  This is very crucial when using stock video.  If you are showing someone getting a shot, give perspective.  “If you are getting a flu shot like these people, ask about whether it is the intradermal vaccine.  New research shows it is less effective than the larger needle.”  You can show a person getting a flu shot, a close up of a needle, and it doesn’t feel generic.  Make sure you throw in references that provide perspective here and there.  If you show a shooting scene, where there is police tape and a street sign and no cars, throw in some loose references.  “Police blocked off this area, along Colonial Drive at the intersection of Smith Avenue.  But you can expect a busier scene in a few hours when the road reopens to traffic.”  Is the video exciting? No.  It takes only a few words, to show the viewer why you are bothering with the images.  Showing the taped off area, the road sign and the empty street helps viewers understand where this happened, and how it impacted the area during the investigation. It’s a simple but effective technique.

When you use show it, explain it you are forced to really understand the story you are talking about.  You have to know where the shooting happened, why an older lady was walking down the street, which house the shooting happened in, and whether shoppers were carrying packages or empty handed.  Bottom line, video doesn’t have to be action packed to have meaning.  Reference it.  Let viewers understand why you are bothering to show images at all.

Yes, you read the title of this article correctly.  If you want a really great writing critique, ask the guys and gals who focus on the images.  Why?  Because, in television news, the words are dependent on the images.  The video and sound should truly tell the story.  This is even true when using graphics to explain a subject.  The visuals, combined with sound and words, are what makes this medium such an incredible pull for viewers. (despite the smaller screen you are using to read this article.)

Photojournalists really understand the powerful connection between the images and the words.  They also know a lot of tricks to help you work around it when the stories are not as visually appealing as you would like.  If you ever get a chance, sit down and watch a newscast with a photojournalist.  It is fascinating to hear their rants vs. the rants of non-photogs in the business.  Will you agree with everything?  Probably not.  But you will gain a lot of insight from the thought processes of a very visual mind.

So while you listen to the critique, keep an ear out for how many times the photojournalist mentions that a story did not make sense.  My guess is you will hear that pretty often.  Then take a closer look at the story.  Chances are your copy and the visuals do not mesh at all.  It really is fascinating to watch how often that happens in TV news.  There is a large disconnect, especially in vo’s and vosots between the visuals and the words being used to describe the story.

Photojournalists help you understand just that.  Your words describe the story.  They don’t simply tell it.  There is a difference in TV news.  Let a photog help you see that for yourself.  Get a critique.  Who knows, the insight could make your writing style even better.

 

Okay, I can hear you talking to your computer screens now, calling this idea (and me) crazy.  Photojournalists hoof it all day, bust their butts, are exhausted at the end of it and don’t need more work with no reward.  Hear me out though.  This is meant to help you keep perspective.

Perspective on what?  Why you hoof it all day, bust your butt and work yourself to the bone.  There is an art to your craft.  Artists need time to just create.  I am not saying turn a piece every week or month.  But when a story really gnaws at you and you shot the heck out of it and only a small part of your great video was used, save the video and turn a photo essay.  Even if you will probably get a “No” answer, give it to an EP and ask where it could air.  Put the piece on YouTube.   Show it to your spouse or your favorite reporter.  Send a link to the photojournalist that inspired you to become one yourself.  Post a link on the  SurviveTVNewsJobs Facebook page.  Experiment and take ownership in having a piece that is just yours.

Too often nowadays TV news is a grind.  You churn and burn and it feels hollow.  You end your day wondering, “Did I make a difference at all?”  Great pieces can and do come along that keep the fire alive, but sometimes you get in a rut.  This is a way to keep you focused.  It is a way to remind you, and the reporters you work with, that TV is worthless without your video and audio.  It helps you push yourself to improve your storytelling.  It can also lead to other opportunities.  I know a great photographer with many Emmys who was able to prove he could also write and associate produce, in part, by putting together well thought out photo essay pieces.  It also feeds the artist in you.  We fellow TV journalists need to see your perspective in this way sometimes.  It helps us remember the true power of this medium too.  So please, turn an occasional photo essay, for all of us.

 

Chinese philosopher Mencius said:  “Friendship is one mind in two bodies.”  This is the basis of why I tell young and/or inexperienced reporters that their best “friends” in a newsroom should be the photographers they work closely with every day.  Being of “one mind” about the stories you tell on a daily basis is the difference between below-average to average TV news stories and great, memorable storytelling that gets viewers to pay attention and your work noticed.

Whenever I move into a new newsroom, the first thing I do is take inventory of the photography staff.  Who’s good?  Who’s average?  Who’s motivated?  Who’s not?  And most importantly… who gets “it?”  Do you know what I mean by “it?”  I mean simply: storytelling.  It is THE number one thing that can take your career as a reporter to limitless heights.  (For more on storytelling see this article http://survivetvnewsjobs.com/?p=306)  Most of us know it when we see it and you should definitely look for it whenever you start in a new shop as well.  Once you have identified the “players” among the photography staff, buddy up with them!  Why?  Because they can make your daily life easy as well as set you up for a successful career path.  On the opposite end of the spectrum… news photographers can also make your life a living hell if you dis them.  Think about that last point for a moment.  You work your tail off turning your story (or in most cases today, stories) for that night’s newscast(s).  You find good “characters”, ask all the right questions and write a gem of a script.  You get it copyedited and it’s ready for the photog to edit into a masterpiece of local news storytelling.  But there’s one problem:  You are the reporter who gives “orders” to photographers rather than asking nicely when you need something from them.  You are the reporter who sits in the truck playing on your smartphone while the photog busts his/her butt breaking down the live shot in the cold.  You are the reporter who calls every story “my story” rather than “our story.”  So, guess what, Mr. or Miss Photog is magically having “editing problems” or just can’t get an edit to take.  Suddenly, that masterpiece of storytelling that was filled with characters and nat sound becomes just another news package slapped together so it can make air.  Think it cannot or does not happen?  Wake up Alice, you’re in Wonderland!  It can and does.

On the other hand, what if you’re the reporter who always helps carry equipment and break down live shots?  What if you’re the reporter who ends every recorded interview by asking the photog if they have any questions for the interviewee?  What if you’re the reporter who asks the photographer to brainstorm ideas on making the standup different and visually stunning?  And what if maybe you’re the reporter who always, and I mean always, tells the photog what a great job they did on “our” story today/yesterday or last week with another reporter?  Well, suddenly Mr. or Miss Photog is busting their hump to get some extra nat sound and a few extra tight shots to really make the story sing!  Keep it up, make it a habit and you’ll soon be getting that effort everyday when you work with that photog.  Then, that photog will tell the others on staff how cool it is to work with you and you’ll start getting the same effort from every photog you work with.  Next thing you know you’re work is noticed as excellent by your bosses and eventually the newsroom you target as the next stop on your march to TV news greatness!

 

The best friend I’ve ever had “in the business” is a photographer.  He just so happens to be what I would consider among the absolute best in the business too with an entire room filled with Emmy and other high level awards.  But there was a time when neither one of us knew what it meant to make really good TV.  We didn’t even know the term “storytelling” much less what it took to do it.  But as our friendship developed so did our relationship as co-workers.  We discovered that we both wanted to know what it took to be really good at making really good TV news stories.  So, we set about teaching ourselves.  We constantly challenged each other to learn and try new things in our stories.  It didn’t take long for both of us to start down the path to great storytelling.  Had we thought of each other as “just a photog” or “just a reporter” rather than as the most important part of the daily equation, neither one of us might have gone on to the successful  and long careers we enjoy.

Unfortunately, there are many, many people in this business who do view TV News Photographers as “just photogs.”  Don’t be one of these people.  TV News Photographers really are THE most important part of the equation.  TV news is at its best when it truly harnesses what no other news medium can harness:  effectively blending moving pictures, with sound and words.  When it makes you feel like ”you are there.”  A reporter can write the words and even say the words.  But without a photographer there is no way you are grabbing all three and making viewers feel connected with great TV news storytelling.  So don’t forget about your true “best friends” in the newsroom.  As Mencius suggested, be of “one mind in two bodies.”  Make sure you make it clear to photogs that you know how important they are to making everyone in the newsroom more successful.  Your job today, and career down the line, will not be sorry and you just might come away with some really good friends too!

 

“60 Minutes” and later tabloid journalism began the push for ”in your face” confrontations between a reporter and a person considered caught red handed.  Now it is the norm for investigative reporters to use ambush interviews after laying out tons of evidence against a company or person who may have crossed the line.  Don’t get us wrong, these interviews can be very effective in this type of package.  What’s interesting is how the concept is bleeding over into everyday news coverage more and more.

Case in point, the Casey Anthony trial down in Orlando.  We won’t spell out the details of the case because everyone in the news biz has some idea of the trial and surrounding media circus.  We are taking a closer look at recent headlines about an interesting walk shot into the courthouse with reporters, photojournalists, and attorneys.  In case you missed it, watch the video courtesy of WESH TV and the Orlando Sentinel.  “Courthouse Confrontation” Make sure you let the video play out all the way to the end.  There is a lull, but in the end it gets interesting again.

Now look at some of the headlines on the internet after the walk shot you just watched.  The Orlando Sentinel called it “ A Bizarre situation with reporters…” The Florida News Center headline read, “Anthony attorneys are annoyed by Orlando media.”  Now consider the News Blues headline, “Orlando reporter harasses Casey Anthony attorney.”  See a common link?  In all of these headlines, the sympathy characters were the attorneys, not the journalists.

Now, let’s consider why fellow TV journalists should care that the reporter gets little love in the coverage of the walk.  It’s an example that shows when there are confrontations, the public tends to sympathize with anyone but the journalist.  Yes, there are some exceptions especially in investigative reporting.  But, remember, we are talking about general news coverage here.  The reporter is described as the aggressor and gets less sympathy in coverage of a situation like this.

Partner this with the fact that, increasingly, news managers are trying to differentiate coverage by “being more aggressive” and you have an entirely new set of ethical issues to consider.  There’s also the matter of there now being so many cameras around that your actions can easily go viral on the internet.  The incident we just linked you to above did, and quickly too.

So here’s what you need to consider when you get into an intense situation.

  • What is your stations news philosophy?
  • How far is too far? (i.e. – What is management’s threshold?)
  • Will you be typecast? (Will it hurt your professional image?)

Your station’s news philosophy must come first because it is the best gage you will get on how far you can take questioning and still have management’s backing.  Some newsrooms are very against confrontational interviews.  Some thrive on them.  News philosophy also determines how you phrase everything you say.  For example, some stations encourage the use of slang to try and relate to the viewer.  Some are completely opposed to it and would be horrified if a reporter used a word like “jerk” in this type of setting.  Some want action no matter what.  They want you to yell.  Others define that as highly unprofessional.

Which leads to our next point:  You need a clue as to management’s threshold.  Managers cannot and will not give you black and white answers about this type of situation for legal reasons.  You can get good reads though, by discussing scenarios ahead of time with a boss.  The video of this reporter covering the Anthony trial can also be a discussion point with a manager.  Ask your managers what they think of the situation and try to talk it out.

Take another look at the video of this walk scene and consider your personal reaction to it.  This is a good opportunity to gut check whehter you are being true to your view of what being a journalist is all about.  In this day and age, you have to worry as much about the next possible boss reacting as you do your current news director.  There is so much turnover, you need to be true to yourself in these situations.  Many times I saw reporters act in a way that seemed very unlike their journalistic style.  When I would talk with them later, I got the same answer each time: “I thought that’s what the ND wanted me to do.”  Most ND’s will push you and tell you to be “aggressive.”  Most bosses also understand that “aggressive” for one type of person is different than for another.  Remain true to your heart and your carefully cultivated professional persona.  You do not want video of your out of character attempt to impress the ND, to go viral on the internet.  It will live forever in the digital world and may come back to bite you one day with another ND.  Even if only the other stations in town see you doing an ambush type interview, this is a small biz.  The other ND’s in town will soon know how you act in the field.  Often ND’s considering hiring you, call your competition to learn more about you and see if you are a commodity.  Keep that in mind.  You are trying to impress all the ND’s in town every day. The only way to do that and not go crazy with stress is to stay true to your personal limits on what’s acceptable.  You do not want to be typecast as something you are not.

One final thought: if something like this happens to you in the field, call your immediate manager right away.  This is very important.  You want to give management time to come up with a reaction before they start getting calls.  We suggest calling your boss even if you aren’t the TV station directly involved.  Just witnessing and recording the whole thing, could mean your ND will get a phone call.  The last thing you want is your ND or GM getting blindsided, by something you knew about, then having to “save face” for you and your station because of an ambush style interview, no matter how common they’ve become.

 

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